Gray skies hang low over the idled Keewatin Taconite plant. I meet my grandpa, Marv Johnson, at the very busy Sinclair gas station. We’re on a secret mission.
“Too crowded,” he says.
I peek around the corner at the gas station’s only table and chairs. Several townsfolk stare back like whitetail deer. Grandpa’s already back in the parking lot. He can be in a hurry when he wants to be.
We nearly lost Grandpa last year when he fell off a ladder. Broken back. Broken pelvis. Severe pneumonia in the hospital. Yet, here he stands. Some argue he shouldn’t drive, but they lost that argument today.
“Let’s go to Colleen’s. Todd will let us in.”
Before we know it, my uncle watches bewilderedly as his father-and-law and nephew walk into his kitchen with a recording kit. Small dogs scurry across the tile floor, yipping their welcome for the man who keeps dog treats for them in his recliner a few blocks away.
I ask grandpa to do a soundcheck on the microphone. Instead, he begins.
“We got married in Michigan, 1957,” he says.
He’s talking about my grandma, Pauline Johnson, who grew up in southern Pennsylvania.
“I was in the Air Force at Selfridge Field. Her dad worked for the Air Force as a civilian. We met at a dance.”
“I’m hoping things turned out a lot better for her than what it started out as,” says the retired miner. “It just seems like the Iron Range had the reputation for drinking and raising hell. When I came home from the service with her she wasn’t used to that kind of living. It was tough. The first five years we were back in Keewatin I’m sure she was very lonesome. We had a couple kids by then. I give her credit for the marriage even staying together.”
Which brings me to why Grandpa called me. He has something to tell grandma and wants it on the record.
“Through our marriage, I was an alcoholic for many years,” he says. “My wife stuck with me and we had six children. They were all raised very nicely. She took care of me and she took care of the kids. She got them all to school every day. I finally had a bad accident. Fell down the steps and broke five ribs and spent some time in the hospital. I decided, this was in 1994, that this was the end of my drinking. So I made a new life for us, without the drinking. She stuck with me through the whole time. She’s been a wonderful mother to the kids.
“[Last fall] I fell off a ladder and broke my back,” he says. “She stuck with me all the way through the trips to the city. I was unaware. I’ll never be able to make it up to her and the rest of the family.
“I like her enthusiasm,” grandpa continues. “She makes up her mind she wants to do something and she does it. And she’s always thinking of the kids. Sometimes a bunch of them will come in and I’m irritated as hell and she starts making coffee and putting cookies out — accepting all the people that come in. And I appreciate it because I sit on my can in my chair and I’m not much for entertaining people. She’s just great. She’s super.”
Grandpa and I know that our time at my aunt and uncle’s kitchen table is limited. We both know how time slips away.
“We came home from a basketball game,” grandpa tells the story from 2010. “And [Pauline] said she couldn’t breathe. She had a ruptured aorta. Doctor said it ruptured on both sides. Dr. Konda down in Duluth said that when they repaired the aorta her body was full of blood. They had to pump out the old blood and pump in the new blood. They pulled her through. I remember seeing doctor in the hallway. I said, ‘you saved her life.” He just pointed toward the ceiling and said that’s who saved her life. As close to death as you can get. She was in a coma for two weeks after that.
“I can never be appreciative enough,” he says. “She seems to think nothing of it. She’s no hero. She gets upset easily, like right now she doesn’t want any accolades. She doesn’t want anyone saying anything nice about her, because she’ll get embarrassed. But she deserves it.”
I turn off the recorder.
“So you think you can put this in the paper? he asks. “Her birthday’s coming up. Not a milestone or anything, but it’s her birthday.”
Happy Birthday, Grandma.
“We hope to make 60 years married next spring,” adds Grandpa. “When that happens we’re going to have a good celebration, even if it’s just her and me.”
Here’s to all the grandparents who made it through the ups and downs of life on the Iron Range with the power of love, forgiveness and no shortage of stubbornness.
Aaron J. Brown is an author and college instructor from northern Minnesota’s Iron Range. He writes the blog MinnesotaBrown.com and hosts the Great Northern Radio Show on Northern Community Radio. This piece first appeared in the Sunday, Oct. 2, 2016 edition of the Hibbing Daily Tribune.